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The New Burlesque 

Torchy Taboo puts the tease back in striptease

It could be just another summer night in Cabbagetown. But in the cool hallway of a shotgun bungalow, where soft twilight filters through gauzy colored scarves, it feels like a Sunset Boulevard boarding house, circa 1942, where traveling salesmen, clip joint operators and showgirls bunk.

A redhead and a blonde out of James Ellroy's wildest imagination go over their nummmba for a show that night. Milt Buckner's "The Beast," a twinkly tune that sounds like ice stacking up in a highball glass, plays in the background as the two dancers break down their steps.

Every now and then, as if to burst the retro bubble and send reality crashing back into the rock 'n' roll present, a heavily tattooed, punk rock-type emerges from a bedroom. He's the redhead's boyfriend, a fire-breather and stilt-walker with a local rock band.

No, it is not 1942. The redhead and the blonde are not preparing for a show at the Follies. Despite the preponderance of sequins, plumage, pasties and tease, we are a good six or seven decades removed from the prime days of burly-q. But it's a testament to the heady power of the New Burlesque that these women could almost make you believe ...

In its heyday, burlesque was a winking, naughty smorgasbord of sex and comedy, with stand-up comics, singers and other clothed entertainers sandwiched in between elaborate striptease sessions.

During the mid-'20s and '30s, dancers such as Gypsy Rose Lee strutted across Los Angeles and Manhattan stages and top-name dancers created signature acts that defined their showbiz identities, like Lili St. Cyr's onstage bubble bath and "Evangeline the Oyster Girl's" halfshell routine. After a period of stagnation following World War II, the phenomenon revved back up, revitalized by dancers such as Georgia girl Tempest Storm, who served up a champagne-bubble fantasy of gorgeous girls, girls, girls.

But in the '60s and '70s, as depictions of sexuality grew increasingly more frank, burlesque became associated with the prudish, stilted sexuality of parents and other outmoded folk. The artifice and showbizzy aspects that had been so glamorous suddenly seemed hokey and dishonest to a new generation. Instead of elaborate peel sessions, topless waitresses were the rage and nudie shows became go-go-athons with nimble young women dancing naked without the theatrical elements of a show or any sense of individual identity.

Well, hold onto your hats, boys and girls. In a refreshing response to the in-your-face sexuality of the modern age, burlesque is big all over again. In Atlanta, the New Burlesque that you can catch any night of the week in New York, San Francisco or New Orleans is still taking baby steps. For now, the local scene is dominated by a one-woman impresario of the shimmy-and-shake. Enter the aforementioned redhead: Eve Wynne-Warren, aka "Torchy Taboo: The Human Heatwave." As the fire-wielding, flame-haired temptress and headliner for her deliciously old-style dance troupe Dames Aflame, Wynne-Warren has resurrected the lost art of burlesque, juicing it up for the 21st century's gimlet-eyed scenemakers.

At various moments in its life cycle, Dames Aflame has turned a girl in a monkey suit into a sexy beast ("Gin-Gin the Wild Woman") and featured Greasepaint band member Jim Stacy as a bellicose clown who filled the gaps between song-and-dance numbers by insulting the audience. But as the headlining act, Wynne-Warren routinely sends the show over the top with a torch-lit number that culminates with her bra bursting into flames.

At 39, Wynne-Warren is a fascinating combination of dreamy girliness and gritty, jaded adult. Dealt a different hand, she might have been the dynamic head of her own company, a brilliant saleswoman. She is that odd beast, an Alpha-female in a slacker world. Maybe there is something in stripping, the ability to assume other personas, the flexibility of identity, but Wynne-Warren is hard to pin down. Even in her "civilian" life, she seems to perform an act, and it's never clear what might be revealed should the mask ever slip.

As a performer, Wynne-Warren has perfected the look and ambiance of old-school burlesque -- the ultra-sexy glances thrown out like gold coins at the audience, the provocative but highly controlled gestures. She has that old-fashioned quality show people call "stage presence" and a bewitching ability to make you believe she was there at the beginning, back when va-va-voom was invented. A demitasse Venus at just 4 foot 11 inches, Wynne-Warren is transformed on stage into a statuesque showgirl by her sexy charisma and sphinx-like smile. With her flash of red hair, those ironically arched eyebrows and that vintage striptease strut and sway, Wynne-Warren is the epitome of the '40s-era burlesque performer, a hybrid of Salome, Bette Midler, Rita Hayworth's Gilda and any woman who's ever used a fan and a grin to advantageous ends.

"You could never be a stripper, you're too scrawny." That comment from a high school boyfriend was all it took to launch an 18-year-old Wynne-Warren into the strip club scene in the early '80s. She proved him wrong, working for 17 years in a variety of clubs, first at gritty downtown venues, which she described as "really divey, dive bars" with "really good stages."

Even then, Wynne-Warren brought a degree of theatricality to the job. "I was getting Girl Scout outfits and old wedding dresses, whatever went with the songs I was dancing to, the shit that I'd seen on MTV, and was taking it into these places where they didn't care what you did," she says. "No one was paying any attention, and I'd just get on stage and do whatever I wanted to do."

By the time she was 21, Wynne-Warren realized she could make good money as a stripper, so she moved to the Cheetah and on to the Gold Club where the clientele was more affluent and generous.

Back then, strip clubs were very different from what they are today. "Working at the Cheetah all that time, I never had to speak to a customer more than 'thank you,'" Wynne-Warren recalls. "I never had to sit down and fraternize or beg for my money or pander."

But as the years wore on, the clubs began to change, and the demands on the strippers were greater. Wynne-Warren saw the industry shift from managers instructing dancers to perform as though there was a dime pressed between their knees (to prevent a glimpse of the "forbidden zone") to a place where grinding one's forbidden zone into the customer's lap or placing one's palms on the scrungy carpet while allowing said customer to peruse one's "business" was expected.

The role of strippers dramatically shifted when they moved from the stage down to the floor, Wynne-Warren says. And the power and icon-status of the stripper was similarly degraded. Before, Wynne-Warren had been able to just dance and collect tips, but now customers wanted more interaction, more talking. They wanted someone whose mind they could buy along with her body.

Wynne-Warren was willing to get naked, but some things remained off limits, like her brain.

To fight her boredom with the industry, Wynne-Warren jumped clubs often and ended up working for a time as a dancer at the She Club on Cheshire Bridge. "Oh, what a dump," she recalls. But as luck would have it, the She Club was next door to a lesbian club called the Sports Page, which had a drag show.

"I was in theater and art in college, and all my friends were gay guys who started taking me to drag shows and they were all constantly playing the Divine Miss M," Wynne-Warren recalls. "They took me to see Bette Midler's stage show and I was just like ... that's it! That's what I want to do."

Anxious to inject a theatrical sensibility into her performance, Wynne-Warren started to pick up tips on burlesque from some of the older dancers still working in the clubs. She began incorporating elements of burlesque into her strip shows, first fashioning herself as retro pin-up Betty Page. She perfected her act by watching Page's vintage strip reels and poring over issues of the glossy fanzine The Betty Pages.

In 1995, Wynne-Warren competed in Dragon*Con's Betty Page Lookalike Contest. There she met one of the judges, Greg Theakston, publisher of The Betty Pages, and he took an immediate shine to her. The two inevitably hooked up and went on to collaborate on the magazine Tease!, with Wynne-Warren modeling and then contributing writing and design work. In turn, Theakston helped Wynne-Warren produce some burlesque shows in her new flame-haired persona of "Torchy," first at the Catch City Club, and later at the Somber Reptile and the Star Bar.

Eventually, Wynne-Warren stopped stripping. After taking a hiatus four years ago, she woke up one day and realized she was too old to go back. "There's just nothing for me in there anymore," she says.

But she still harbored dreams of burlesque, and those dreams were further fueled last year when she attended the inaugural Tease-O-Rama, a burlesque convention in New Orleans. For the first time, Wynne-Warren realized there were other women out there doing what she was doing. "It was the happiest feminist thing I've ever been at," she says. She saw women from all over the country perform acts based on vintage burlesque but inspired by their own creative, sexual visions. That's when Wynne-Warren realized the burlesque scene was everything stripping wasn't.

She saw in burlesque the perfect antidote to the pandering, guy-dominated strip club. It was perky, fun and an answer to the nihilism of the grunge era that came before. It also was a way for girls, who previously had stood on the retro culture sidelines, to take the stage and break into the guy-band dominated alterna-scene.

Wynne-Warren reveled in the element of female fantasy evident in the feathery, glitter-dusted finery and the music -- ranging from Tom Waits to Nick Cave -- but also in the composition of the audience. Instead of dancing for the clammy chumps of strip clubs, in most cases, burlesque performers are dancing for an in-the-know crowd of retro savants.

Wynne-Warren discovered that many of the women performing at Tease-O-Rama were gloriously zaftig in a manner inconsistent with the even more fulsome burlesque queens of yore and certainly out of line with contemporary ideas of naked beauty. The Seattle dancers who perform as The Gun Street Girls, for example, all have the look of sexy baby dolls, their alabaster casings inflated past girlish to womanly.

In the New Burlesque, "there's no stigma attached to a performer's age or her body type," says Theakston, who has since parted ways with Wynne-Warren. He judged this year's Miss Exotic World contest in Helendale, Calif., where neo-burlesque and old-school queens like 70-something Tempest Storm stripped. "The audience is extremely accepting of these variations of shapes, size and looks."

Even though her stripping days are behind her, Wynne-Warren is haunted by its influence. Strip clubs are what she always measures burlesque against. She makes no bones about it, the stripper is her nemesis, a reminder of the vulgar displays she wants her act to topple. At a recent performance at the Star Bar, those tensions came to a head.

Wynne-Warren and a new burlesque recruit, Destiny, had prepared a show, but when they got to the Star Bar, the crowd was primed for strippers, not the conceptual, stylized titillation of burlesque. All set to unleash the fiery seductions of another age on a rock 'n' roll crowd, Wynne-Warren was mortified to find a cadre of strippers sharing the stage with her burlesque act.

To add insult to injury, the strippers were calling the shots. They wanted Wynne-Warren and Destiny to open the show, because [Wynne-Warren adopts the stripper's helium-girly-girl voice] "we show our pussies and since you don't, if you go on after us, the crowd's going to think you're lame."

It was a blatant affront to the world of Peekaboo from the world of Spread'em. "That was like taking a glove off and slapping me in the face," says Wynne-Warren.

Destiny was up first, but the burlesque ambiance was imperiled from the very beginning when the crowd did the unthinkable: "They touched her with tips," says Wynne-Warren disgustedly. "She was trying to do a burlesque act, and they were treating her like a stripper."

Like Superman turning on his heat-vision, Wynne-Warren was not going to put up with another crowd of drunken men calling the shots. When it was her turn on the stage, she gave them all a taste of her icy dominatrix stare-down.

"I went out there and I sat down and I looked at everyone like, 'You will obey me now!' And they did!" she says. "I did the flaming bra and I did the torches, and they went berserk."

Wynne-Warren may have worked for other people for most of her life, but she controls every detail of her burlesque shows, clearly relishing the chance to say, "Oh, she is soooo fired," when one of her dancers gets out of line. A crafty type who previously channeled her creativity into event planning and sewing wedding gowns, Wynne-Warren makes all her own costumes, choreographs her own numbers, chooses the music, designs the lighting, manages Dames Aflame and books the venues. She can speak expertly about the pitfalls of Velcro and the endurance of various glues used to affix pasties. She has become a dedicated, astute archeologist of burlesque.

Wynne-Warren's mission is to give female desire center stage, and her conviction is highly infectious. She believes in burlesque and its ability to put sexuality back in female hands. But alongside her determination, Wynne-Warren retains some of the scattered, too-many-late-nights, inability-to-focus qualities of a proverbial party girl. Even four years out of the business, she is still on stripper time, that endearing and maddening rhythm common to women who live a reverse chronology, dancing at night and sleeping during the day, working odd shifts, never staying at one bar for long, always moving on.

Wynne-Warren is currently serving cocktails at the Dollhouse, but her avocation fuels dreams of escape. She has a million ideas. She thought about running off to join the circus ("But it came to me!" she laughs, referring to her fire-breathing boyfriend). She thought about spending some time touring New York's burlesque circuit, which even includes a revived Coney Island burly show.

"To perform at Coney Island like the famous Tirza!" Wynne-Warren takes a sudden intake of breath, "Coooooool!"

Asked about her burlesque dream to end all dreams, Wynne-Warren doesn't hesitate.

"I have this thing in mind ... I want to be the absinthe fairy. Just something very big and weird. I want people to come home from seeing something that I do and I want them to be disturbed, and at the same time a little excited, and aroused."

Wynne-Warren straddles two worlds: a town thick with strip clubs but oblivious to the subtle powers of womanly seduction, and an imagined world of the past when men were men and dames were dames and the repertoire of seduction was clear. Though she describes herself as an exhibitionist, she is an exhibitionist who likes distance. Burlesque is founded on distance and the power it entails. It's about using your brain, your intelligence, something Wynne-Warren was never allowed to exercise in the strip clubs.

"It's more tease than tell. You engage the human imagination and therefore the real sexual buttons. You only go this far and then you let the person's imagination take over."

During a rehearsal in her Cabbagetown bungalow, Wynne-Warren hands over one of her homemade pasties, and its significance suddenly becomes apparent. In the age of easy-access porn, this fragile costume, the size of a silver dollar, is the great divide. Therein lies the secret of burlesque and Wynne-Warren's talent in particular -- the ability in an age of public disclosure to keep a small part of oneself hidden.

Unlike the professional flirts who work contemporary strip clubs, chatting up customers who down premium-priced drinks, Wynne-Warren never offers the fraudulent promise of intimacy. Such are the contradictions of striptease: provocation combined with a gentle pull back and saucy slap in the face with a pink feather boa.

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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